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Chip side of the Open Interconnect Consortium

Chip side of the Open Interconnect Consortium
by Don Dingee on 07-09-2014 at 9:00 pm

Maybe it’s my competitive analysis gene, or too many years spent hanging out with consortium types, but I’m always both curious and skeptical when a new consortium arises – especially in a crowded field of interest. The dynamics of who aligns with a new initiative, and how they plan to go to market compared to other entities, prompts deeper exploration.

We’ve had a spate of IoT consortia showing up this year, and it seems there is a new one popping up every day. These days, the operative word is open – open source is a requirement to get anywhere with developers and makers. Outside of the Industrial Internet Consortium which is dealing with a much gorier systems-of-systems problem in a more traditional embedded scenario, most of these new initiatives are targeting consumer connectivity.

Ecosystem polarization is also a theme. After all, technology has been driven by specification “wars” forever, where participants align with a side and play a game that often takes years or even decades before a decisive score. To get into the game, one has to be chosen for particular skills, and commit to a group with an idea.

Not surprisingly, the “captains” of these IoT consortia are coming from the smartphone experience. Qualcomm moved first by opening up AllJoyn into the AllSeen Alliance, with a roster recently topping 50 companies including the addition of Microsoft. Apple then served up HomeKit, Google responded with a Nest API, and BlackBerry is lurking with Project Ion.

What’s missing here? AllSeen has a couple of semiconductor companies, notably Imagination Tech and Silicon Image to go along with Qualcomm. For the most part, these initiatives are primarily software-oriented, with middleware, carriers, and device OEMs leading the way. I’ve been quoted as saying “software is the solution”, but the overall absence of microcontroller and SoC vendors in all this is a bit alarming.

People like to say the semi vendors want to be able to sell chips into any application – they’re agnostic. Hogwash, when it comes to this phase of the IoT. That’s like saying we’ll just wait around until we’re the last kid on the playground to be picked. If you’ve been reading me and others lately, it is clear we don’t have the right chips yet for many IoT applications, particularly wearables and always-on scenarios. The software won’t be right until the IoT silicon is right.

Chipmakers can’t afford to wait on the sidelines, hoping their standard fare gets picked up and fits in with one of these teams. They also can’t take the proprietary route, such as TI trying to draw cloud providers onto only their solutions – especially without IPv6 support for their Wi-Fi solutions yet. What we need is a much more collaborative discussion with a variety of viewpoints, including multiple semiconductor vendors working on a common cause.

This week’s debut of the Open Interconnect Consortium may signal a change is coming. At a first glance, the co-captains are Intel and Samsung – a statement that affirms Tizen is headed straight for the IoT and a home and a wrist near you. (Yeah, yeah, the right words on Android and iOS and Windows and even RTOS platforms are there, but read the charter that says “must provide an open source implementation” again.) Exactly how the OIC proceeds is a bit nebulous; the specifications are as yet to be defined, with only sweeping statements on creating an open, certified, and branded environment so far.

One thing is for sure: semiconductors are well represented. Right at the top of the OIC roster are two names that should get attention: Atmel, and Broadcom. Not coincidentally, these are two of the bigger names behind the maker movement, representing the Arduino and Raspberry Pi communities.

If one was to pick a chip vendor for an IoT team, Atmel seems the logical choice right now. They have a wealth of 6LoWPAN, Bluetooth, and ZigBee experience – and are adding depth with this week’s acquisition of Newport Media. They also have exposure with two of the more prominent open IoT operating systems, Contiki and RIOT. Atmel has a birds-eye view at what makers and startups are actually doing on the IoT. Their voice could prove very important in aligning chip design, software design, and use cases as the OIC develops specifications.

Broadcom is compelling for other reasons beyond their SoC presence. As a major Wi-Fi chipset vendor, they line up well as a counter to Qualcomm on the other side. Historically, Broadcom has been notoriously obstinate in refusing to provide open source drivers for solutions, even labeled “open source hostile” in some forums. Their stance may finally be changing, perhaps in response to the AllJoyn momentum and a realization that makers are our new best friends on the IoT.

And, this isn’t the Haswell-fueled side of Intel talking, but their maker efforts in Edison and Galileo powered by Atom and Quark, and an acquisition of Basis. Wind River is also listed as a lead member, and as the embedded software operation of Intel, they have accumulated vast experience with Android, Linux, and Tizen that could serve this effort nicely.

Where AllSeen has a significant head start, the OIC is just entering the game. I’d watch what they do next, as they add members and release specifications. A lot will likely hinge on how well Tizen is accepted for IoT applications, who else lines up with support, and how interoperability with the other environments – open or proprietary – is established.

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